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Dustin Putman

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City of Ember  (2008)
1 Stars
Directed by Gil Kenan.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place, Martin Landau, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Liz Smith, Amy Quinn, Catherine Quinn.
2008 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild peril and some thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 7, 2008.
If there is any sense of fun to Jeanne Duprau's novel of the same name, filmic adaptation "City of Ember" has not ably translated it to the big screen. As if Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick joined forces on a semi-chamber piece targeting family audiences without having the first idea how to go about making it, the picture is stagnant, lugubrious and very, very slow. Kids will be bored and, actually, adults will be just as restless. For director Gil Kenan, this is particularly unfortunate. Making his live-action debut after helming 2006's delightful motion-capture-animated "Monster House," Kenan appears lost in working with human actors on tangible sets. There's simply no connection between any of it—not with the performers, not with the story, and certainly not with viewers looking to be entertained.

The premise is, for a time, imaginative enough to catch one's attention. The world as we know it has ended, and the city of Ember has been built underground for a group of survivors. A box holding the key to the outside world is sealed up and set on a 200-year timer, passed down from generation to generation but ultimately getting misplaced in the interim. Two centuries later, Ember's generators—their sole source of energy and light—have begun to flicker and sputter, threatening total collapse. For teenage messenger Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and pipeworker Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), they are not about to give up and let their community perish. They're not sure what lies above the city, if anything does, but they are determined to find out.

"City of Ember" opens with an engrossing idea and then works against it to make the proceedings as ineffectual as possible. The screenplay by Caroline Thompson (2005's "Corpse Bride") takes too long setting the conflict up in the first half, and then rushes through what should have been the bulk of the running time—Lina's and Doon's perilous journey upward to the outside world. The production design by Martin Laing is impressive, creating an entire town within what looks to have been an enormous soundstage, but it is at the service of characters who never endear themselves to the viewer and a plot that meanders when it should be gaining momentum.

The cast snooze their way through their roles and have no chemistry with each other. The best of the lot is Saoirse Ronan (2007's "Atonement"), plucky enough, if not a beacon of personality, as Lina. Her lead co-star, however, is hopeless. 24-year-old Harry Treadaway (2007's "Control") is far too old to be playing the teenage Doon—in the book, his character is all of twelve—and he's as bland as they come. An interview with director Gil Kenan reveals that he decided to age the protagonists after Treadaway became his first and only choice for the role. Whatever spark Treadaway might have shown at his audition is woefully absent from the finished product. In supporting turns, Bill Murray (2005's "Broken Flowers") is miscast as the greedy, deceptive Mayor of Ember, unable to disappear into the character, and Tim Robbins (2005's "Zathura") is wholly forgettable as Doon's father Loris. The less said about the wasted talents of Mary Kay Place (2004's "Silver City"), Toby Jones (2007's "The Mist"), Martin Landau (2003's "Hollywood Homicide") and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (2000's "The Cell"), the better.

The movie resuscitates to life in the last ten minutes, by this time too late to gain much mileage. Using a series of sketchy directions, Lina, Doon and Lina's toddler sister Poppy (Amy and Catherine Quinn) attempt to escape the depths of Ember in a small boat that shoots them down rapids and slides. It's good for a cursory thrill, and their discovery of a large stone stairway up to what could either be a flourishing earth or an apocalyptic landscape creates signs of wonder missing from what has come before it. Indeed, the only interest to be divulged from the film is the question of what awaits them above ground. The viewer wants to know the answer to this, but unfortunately doesn't care enough about the characters for it to matter either way.

Besides being plodding, the fatal error of "City of Ember" is its lack of heart. There is no human warmth in the story being told, or in the characters, who too often resemble animate mannequins rather than real people. Lina's relationship with her little sister is businesslike—Poppy is basically pulled along without interacting with her or Doon—and her home life with a grandma who has lost her marbles is dark without being treated with an emotional touch. There is also some off-the-mark dealings with a chorus led by Mrs. Murdo (Mary Kay Place) that seems out of place and misguided. Are they singing in a death march? Are they supposed to be symbolic of religious zealots? Whatever the case, they don't fit. As a family adventure, "City of Ember" is screechingly immobile. As a post-apocalyptic fantasy, it's morose and joyless. Is there an audience for this film? Unlikely.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman